Smoking With Susan Henderson

Read the Story August 15, 2004

We love this ambitious flash about love, death and longing. Can you tell us about the genesis of it?

This flash came about when a fellow writer challenged me to write a piece of magical realism. I wasn’t entirely sure what magical realism was—I’m still not sure. But I began playing with notions of life and death and mixing them up a bit.

The story came to me visually—as a short, silent film. And I like it better that way, the way it is in my head. Words still don’t seem right for it.

It’s a love story in some ways—a woman comes to life, is freed from her self-consciousness and self-hatred. But it’s also a story of self-imprisonment—the self turned inward to a hideous degree, a woman calling out her own name because she’s forgotten the name of her lover. Her euphoria and sense of peace comes as she rots on the shore and lets herself get washed out to sea. She’s both coming alive and dying away, all at once.

We think the woman in this story is a romantic, giving herself up to her lover the way she does. Is Sue Henderson a romantic?

Oh, I’m terribly unromantic. We don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day or anniversaries or anything. All that stuff makes me tired. If we happen to have sex during a Monday Night Football game, I’m the first one to peek at the TV and see who missed their block or to shout out which blitz package the coach should call.

Did you know Dick LeBeau is back as Defensive Coordinator for the Steelers? I’m very excited about that. That does more for me than flowers and Hallmark cards.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Third grade. I was always writing poems, making up extra assignments for myself. By the time I finished elementary school, I was pretty taken with Orwell, Donne, Shirley Jackson, James Dickey, and Dylan Thomas. That’s when I started my habit of noticing details or moments I just had to write down—on my arm, a desk, wherever I could find a clean surface, and quick.

You took a trip to China this year. What surprised you most, and will you be writing about it?

Oh, I had such an unbelievable time there. I have no idea if a story will come of it, but I expect the trip has sharpened my senses and changed me in ways I don’t know yet. The most concrete surprise I had there was running into a group of locals who spoke sign language. Up until then, I’d been stuck with my minimal Mandarin (hello; thank you; you’re welcome; No, I don’t want to buy your postcards). I’ve been signing since I was a kid, and I felt this total elation being able to communicate—I mean, we understood each other just fine. I think what surprised me about this—besides the fact that the sign language I knew was the same as they used—was realizing how much communication means to me. How important it is for me to share stories and feel understood and hear the stories others have to tell.

You edit the prestigious literary magazine, Night Train. Is there anything that you see over and over again in submissions that frustrates you?

Honestly, what I see over and over again is heart. Writing and submitting stories to magazines involves such vulnerability, and I feel very protective of our writers in the slush pile. These stories, whether we choose them or not, are little gifts—lenses into other people’s hearts and their unique window on the world. So even though, statistically, I reject most stories that come my way, I try to remember the privilege of having something so intimate placed in my hands, and I hope I respond with some generosity.

I rarely get frustrated with submissions, only in my stamina for them. It’s hard to read, read, read, and it feels as if I’m constantly weighing my sense of duty in getting back to writers quickly with my need to write my own stories or spend time with my family or just rest my eyes.

About the Author:

Susan Henderson is a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and the Managing Editor of Night Train. Her work has appeared in Oakland Review's 25th Anniversary Anthology, Zoetrope: All-Story Extra (December 2000 and September 2001), Today's Parent, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Eyeshot, Alsop Review, Happy, Opium (January 2003 and April 2004), Carve Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, The MacGuffin, Zacatecas: A Review of Contemporary Word, Word Riot, Pig Iron Malt, Mid-South Review, Eleven Bulls, Insolent Rudder, Ink Pot (January 2004 and July 2004), Moondance (December 2003 and April 2004), North Dakota Quarterly, The Edward Society, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, SmokeLong Quarterly (June 2004 and August 2004), Avatar Review, as well as in a number of pamphlets and training manuals used at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape. She recently helped to judge the "20-Minute Stories" contest at McSweeney's.

About the Artist:

A native of Ohio, Marty D. Ison lives with his wife transplanted in the sands of the Gulf of Mexico. He studied fine arts at Saint Petersburg College. In addition to the visual arts, he writes poetry, short stories, and novels. See more of Ison's work here.